If you grew up in the 70′s-80′s decades, chances are, you may have run into High Feather in the classroom or on summer vacation. Let me give your memory a little jog. High Feather was produced by the Bureau of Mass Communications and the New York State Education Department and chronicled the experiences of eight children at a summer camp in Peekskill, NY in 10, half-hour episodes. The four boys (Leo, Stan, Tom and Domingo) and four girls (Cathy, Leslie, Ann and Suzanne) have a variety of adventures, chiefly centering on nutrition. They learn to care about their health as it relates to eating and fitness and come to be good friends by the end of the summer.
High Feather Episode Guide
Welcome To Camp
In this episode, the children arrive, meet one another and meet their counselors, Kim and Sharon. Many of the kids are disturbed by the food they encounter, both because it’s different than what their mothers cook at home and because the camp doesn’t offer salt on the tables, sugar cereals, etc. The children also have to turn in any supplements they’ve brought to camp with them because the camp provides balanced meals from which they expect the campers to derive total nutrition. The main action in this first episode revolves around Domingo avoiding swimming tests because he can’t swim. He feels ashamed and takes to the lake alone one afternoon with a leaky inner tube. He is saved from drowning by his peers who show concern and friendship for him.
In this episode, some of the boys think Stan is stuck up because he acts possessive about his belongings. Soon, they discover that he has a health condition and everyone strives to help him with this. The main theme of this episode is a lesson in reading labels to discover what’s really in processed foods. The children throw a party for counselor, Sharon, and bake her a carrot cake and make mango sherbet from scratch.
This episode centers on Tom’s weight problem. The main characters bet that they can beat a group of mean kids in the upcoming foot races, but the mean kids (and they really are mean kids) stipulate that if Tom doesn’t run, they automatically win the bet. Tom struggles to keep up with the others while trying to stop eating junk food, but loses heart and decides he won’t compete. At the last moment, he changes his mind and helps his team win the race.
Nose For News
Leo voluteers his friends’ time to publish an edition of the school paper. After a temporary falling out, they agree to help him, out of friendship, but all of the children struggle to find topics to write about. Tom witnesses the camp chef, Manuel Rios, fighting with the head of the camp, Mrs. Riggs. When the chef quits, Tom decides he has a scoop for the paper, but soon discovers that Chef Rios is just a bit temperamental and truly cares about the quality of the food he is providing the campers. Some of the children spend a day going to truck farms and pick-it-yourself farms with Chef Rios while the others experiment with doing Mrs. Riggs’ weekly shopping for her. They learn lessons about looking for local food (yes, locavores, even back then) that is of the highest quality at the best prices and not blowing their budget on junk food. The episode ends with Leo yet again volunteering his friends’ time to start a camp vegetable garden.
Leslie begins exhibiting signs of anorexia when she decides to stop eating and live on vitamins in preparation for an up-coming dance tryout. She becomes grumpy and fights with her peers. Counselor, Sharon, becomes concerned that Leslie is isolating herself. She suggests that Leslie work with Tom in the ceramics shop, making mugs, and the two have fun together. However, Tom’s feelings are hurt when Leslie continuously talks about weight and accidentally breaks some special mugs they were working on. Leslie faints during her dance tryout and her parents threaten to take her home from camp until Camp Nurse Rodriguez has a serious talk with them all about nutrition. Leslie learns that calories are like the fuel a car needs to run and she promises to eat heathily in future. She makes up with Tom by making a new tray of mugs for him and the children have a party with healthy foods.
Lost In The Woods
In this memorable episode, the campers go on a long hike in the woods. Stan and Ann break the rules by straying from the group to go bird watching and get lost. Then Cathy and Leo get lost trying to find them. The children discuss edible foods in the wilderness and not drinking untreated water. Finally, they all arrive at the McKillens’ farm late at night and the couple feed them supper while they wait for counselor, Kim, to come fetch them. While eating, the children learn that the farming couple is worried because their usual help can’t come bring in the harvest. Kim is very angry with the children and tells them that they cannot go on an upcoming backpacking trip because they can’t be trusted to obey rules. The children ask if they can go help the McKillens bring in the harvest and they have a very educational day, picking vegetables and learning about cows and chickens.
This episode (the one I remembered most clearly from childhood) centers on Tommy who is sent home from camp because his parents can’t afford to pay for a second term there after Tommy’s father loses his job. Tommy becomes seriously depressed and immediately returns to his junk food diet, even using the family’s precious grocery money to fill a shopping cart with junk food. Then, the lessons Tom learned at camp kick in and he decides to help his Aunt Elinor cook. They serve up an inexpensive and nutritious meal of rice and beans which Tommy’s comically dysfunctional family greets with something less than enthusiasm. However, the whole family comes to feel proud of Tommy when he earns money doing odd jobs in order to buy seeds and plant a vegetable garden. Though Tommy misses camp, he has found something to do that helps him to feel good about himself again.
In this episode, Suzanne’s older cousin Jeff arrives at the camp as a counselor. The children are trying to figure out a way to participate in the county fair, but Jeff ruins their plans by irresponsibly going to a party and forgetting to turn in their fair application. The children are very disappointed because they’ve all created healthy dishes to display at the fair. Even Stan has overcome his beliefs that cooking is for women and has taken cooking lessons from Camp Chef Rios. In the end, Jeff makes good by convincing the fair officials to let the kids set up a table anyway and he apologizes for his mistakes. The kids have a nice day at the fair after all.
In this episode, some of the campers are busy trying to take care of a dog that was abandoned by an irresponsible owner. Meanwhile, Leo offers guidance to a messy little boy who won’t eat. He encourages the boy to shape up and play tennis with him. Counselor, Sharon, finds out about the hidden dog and a trip to the vet ensues. The children learn that, just like people, dogs have to have the right nutrition to function properly.
Counselor Kim tells the children that his relatives back in Korea are suffering from hunger because a drought destroyed their crops. The children are trying to think of a program to put on for the camp show in which the winning act will receive an award of money to put towards a charity of their choice. They meet a group of elders at a senior lunch center and discover that many older people can’t survive on social security money. An ex-Vaudeville actor named Danny offers to help the kids put together an act and other elders volunteer to make costumes and make healthy refreshments to sell at the show. The children learn that many elders are lonely, and Domingo forges a special friendship with a grumpy man who comes to see that not all kids are a pain in the neck. The children win the award by singing the theme song from High Feather and decide to split their winnings between Kim’s village and the senior center.
Interesting Facts And Funny Things About High Feather
- High Feather was filmed at a real summer camp called Camp Madison Felicia that was active throughout the 20th century as a camp for underprivileged children from urban areas.
- The wonderful music in this series, including the theme song, was composed by Peter Link who is still an active songwriter. In addition to writing the High Feather score, memorable for its marvelously fuzzy analog keyboards, harmonica and whistling, Link wrote the theme for another well-loved educational series called Vegetable Soup. Link also contributed to Sesame Street, Big Blue Marble and The Electric Company. A few years ago, I sent Peter Link an email through his website, telling him how much I had always enjoyed the High Feather music. Sadly, I didn’t receive a reply, but I’m glad I wrote, anyway. I’ve actually figured out how to play a number of the songs from this show on my piano.
- Speaking of music, I think one of the funniest parts in this whole series is when Tommy has to go to a party with his sister in the ‘Going Home’ episode. Seriously, the music the kids are listening to at the party is hilarious.
- Another funny thing – no one in the show seems to know what the Chef’s correct surname is. Some of them call him ‘Chef Rios’ and others call him ‘Mr. Rio’. Oops.
- I find the fact that this show suggests you can make a blueberry pie without sweetener of any kind a little hard to swallow. Fresh berries are sweet, but the minute you cook them, they lose nearly all of their sweetness. I’m afraid the sugar-free blueberry pie Cathy takes to the county fair would gag anyone who tried it. And while we’re talking about the fair, what exactly are the children doing to participate? They seem to be standing a table saying the names of healthy foods they’ve cooked, but how is the public supposed to interact with this rather vague display?
- This show was prone to go slightly overboard on occasion regarding nutritional propaganda, and I find it humorous that the most oft-repeated tidbit of advice is that potatoes aren’t fattening unless you drown them in butter. This is stated in numerous episodes. Did a national potato growers’ organization have a hand in High Feather?
- And, speaking of national organizations, this show is becoming quickly dated by its insistence that people need to drink milk to have healthy bones. That was definitely the spiel of the 80′s, but these days, controversy surrounding milk paints it as more of a health hazard than a help. Meat and other animal products are also fairly heavily promoted in the show, but any modern viewer will have to give credit to the makers of High Feather for its promotion of rice and beans and other vegetable-based forms of nutrition, even if they refer to them as ‘supplemental protein’.
- In the ‘Lost In The Woods’ episode, why does Mrs. McKillen yell at the children at the top of her voice to come to dinner when they are all sitting in the same room with her? What a very loud woman. This part always makes me laugh.
- And, finally, if ‘High Feather’ is a health camp, why do they have a vending machine full of candy bars? I’ve always wondered that.
Why Am I Writing About High Feather on VeganReader.com?
We’re no fans of television. In fact, we don’t have any type of TV reception here, though we do have a very old TV set we keep for occasional use with tapes. Nevertheless, I have always viewed television as a miraculous form of media. Sitting in my home, I can be transported to China, to 18th century America, into a kitchen where someone is cooking, into a story where I may learn something new about how other people live. I was raised in a house where TV viewing was strictly monitored and limited. However, each summer the local public television station would run shows like High Feather, Vegetable Soup with its emphasis on celebrating diverse cultures, The Voyage of the Mimi in which a group of children were monitoring whales while sailing in an old ship, Getting To Know Me which I recall being about taking pride in African-American roots and a variety of other short shows that promoted social harmony, health and creativity. My parents felt okay about we children watching these programs, and I absolutely loved them and continue to look at them fondly to this day.
The interesting thing about this message-filled programming was that, as a child, I really didn’t pick up on the fact that very specific axes were being ground by the producers behind the shows. In fact, I watched a show like High Feather more because of interest in the stories of the children’s lives at camp than for the nutritional teachings it packed with so strong a punch. Propaganda of all kinds if often like that. Viewers watch without questioning intent, and this phenomenon can be put to both good and bad use, as we all know so well.
Fortunately, the message behind these 70s and 80s educational shows was overall a positive one. I think that the writers and film makers of that time must have looked around at urban violence, racial tensions, bomb-dropping governments and materialistic segments of society and decided to shine a spotlight on alternative viewpoints. Black kids and Asian kids could be friends while making fry bread with a Native American lady. Chubby kids could take their health into their own hands and plant summer squash. We could all come to empathize with people of all walks of life by learning their stories and their songs. Social harmony was an ideal to be reached for and world peace might just be around the corner. If that sounds hopelessly idealistic, let’s take a look at some of the altered social norms common in people of my generation.
- In contrast to the habits of speech common in my parents’ generation, using racial slurs is not considered acceptable amongst my peers. Those nasty words have come to sound ridiculously antique in modern conversation.
- A live-and-let-live philosophy of life has people of my generation bending over backwards not to judge the religion, politics or chosen lifestyles of others in any way. Sometimes, I worry that we’ve gone too far towards an apathetic confusion of amorality in my generation, but at least we aren’t generally freaked out by the idea of people having a different lifestyle than our own.
- We’ve certainly come closer to seeing our planet as the ‘Big Blue Marble’. We are realizing that the Earth is one unit, despite the diversity of life on it, and that what affects one of us affects all of us. Global consciousness, especially heightened through Internet usage, has become normative thought.
- From public service announcements about littering to classroom lessons about greenhouse gases, my generation was the first to be bombarded with awareness and guilt over the concept of environmental pollution. Sadly, we haven’t done much about this, but we’ve got an awfully young president now, and as the years go by, the kids of the 70s will be the government. I have to wonder, will their principles and ethics be in some way informed by Woodsy The Owl?
I don’t know how deeply our show of outward tolerance runs. We’ve yet to save the world. And, we’ve got the next generations coming up under us and I really don’t know what the kids these days are watching. Does anyone still care about kids enough to produce educational TV for them that encourages brotherly love and environmental stewardship, or is it all mindless, money-making entertainment? Not having television reception, I don’t know, but I do know that if someone asked me to recommend a good program for a youngster to watch, I’d be loaning them something like High Feather which holds a special place in our hearts here at VeganReader.com. Absorbing its memorable promotion of local eating, farms, cooking from scratch and thinking carefully about nutrition, maybe it makes sense that we grew up to write a blog about organic farming, food safety, peace and justice. A 10 part educational TV series is just a drop in the bucket of all the formative experiences of my childhood, but when I think about it, I can see the connection in my life. Can you see it in yours? I’d love to hear how you feel watching this type of programming influenced your life and the person you grew up to be.
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